Shatter 'interfered with inquiry' Judge accuses Justice Minister of undermining probe into RUC murders
JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter has publicly clashed with a judge heading a state inquiry into the murders of two senior RUC officers after the judge accused the minister of interfering with its independence.
In an unprecedented public criticism by a tribunal chairman of a named government minister, Judge Peter Smithwick accused Mr Shatter of a "wholly inappropriate attempt to interfere" with the independence of the inquiry.
In a series of robust letters exchanged between the pair, which were published yesterday, Judge Smithwick claimed that sensitive and important witnesses who had been "painstakingly secured" by the tribunal were reconsidering giving evidence because of the alleged interference by Mr Shatter with the inquiry.
The retired District Court judge also attacked the "spin" which he said had followed an unexpected announcement last month that the tribunal would have to finish all public hearings and have a final report by November 30.
Last night, Mr Shatter said that there was "no question" of political interference with the work of the tribunal.
"My concern was to ensure public transparency," he said. "We cannot have in this State open-ended tribunals."
Earlier this month, the terms of reference of the six-year-old tribunal were amended, compelling Judge Smithwick to deliver a final report by November. The controversial and divisive motion was passed by the Dail after the judge had raised concerns about the impact of Mr Shatter's comments on the work of the tribunal.
The inquiry, which was established in 2005, is examining allegations that certain gardai, or a civilian working in the force, colluded with the IRA in the killing of Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan in an ambush in south Armagh on March 20, 1989.
In the letters, Judge Smithwick criticised a press statement from the Government, setting an apparent deadline of November 30 this year for the work of the tribunal.
The deadline had not been notified to the tribunal and was described by Judge Smithwick as "singularly ill-advised".
He said the effect of the public deadline was to indicate to parties who wanted to frustrate its work that they should withold their co-operation for a few months in order to achieve their objective.
He also revealed, in a later letter on 1 June, that press reports of a deadline had led to an "important witness" outside the Republic "reconsidering his co-operation".
On the same day, Mr Shatter placed a motion before the Dail, calling for an interim report by June 30 and an indication that the tribunal would finish its work by the end of November.
Fianna Fail accused Minister Shatter of threatening public confidence in the Smithwick Tribunal. Party leader Micheal Martin said the revelations concerning the Smithwick Tribunal provided clear evidence that the Dail was misled when the Government pushed through a motion to limit its work.
John McBurney, solicitor for Chief Supt Breen's widow June and their two children David and Gillian, told the Irish Independent that it was "quite alarming" to note how severely Judge Smithwick had to challenge Minister Shatter on the imposition of a deadline on the tribunal's work.
Yesterday the clerk of the Dail received an interim report from Judge Smithwick updating the Dail on its progress to date.